Blowing Questions

Scientific Literacy: Teach Questions, Not Answers

It seems today the mistrust of official health advice and spread of “alternative” treatments for COVID-19 are as frightening as the virus itself. How is it that so many people are ill-informed (and seemingly choose to be so) about the pandemic, despite decades of compulsory science education?

Of course we are entering a post-truth era in which fake news and conspiracy theories proliferate, while many have contempt for scientific facts.

But a deeper problem lies in the way we teach science. Content mastery and high-stakes testing still drive our curriculum and instruction, which alienates many young people from scientific ideas.

Students learn isolated and impersonal facts without understanding the history and processes of how scientists know what we know — an education in scientific literacy.

The Australian Curriculum defines scientific literacy as:

An ability to use scientific knowledge, understanding, and inquiry skills to identify questions, acquire new knowledge, explain science phenomena […] and draw evidence-based conclusions in making sense of the world, and to recognise how understandings of […] science help us make responsible decisions and shape our interpretations of information.

While laudable as an educational goal, scientific literacy is seldom an emphasis in practice. We need to do more to promote it in primary and secondary schools.

Why Facts Aren’t Enough

The problem with people’s mistrust of science has little to do with their actual intelligence or overall education. After all, some educated people still believe the Earth is flat, and climate change is contentious.

Getting someone to accept a new idea goes beyond the brain to a broader consideration of the person’s social, cultural and emotional factors.

American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt used a rider and elephant analogy to explain why we are resistant to new ideas and beliefs. The rider is the rational side of our mind while the elephant is the unconscious and emotional side. To change a person’s view, it is useless to focus on the rider without addressing the elephant.

Science is full of strange ideas that are sometimes at odds with common sense, such as matter being made of moving atoms, or time being relative. Teaching these ideas as facts is like targeting the rider.

Many educational theorists have long argued the idea knowledge could somehow be “transferred” from teachers and textbooks to students is untenable. The students will still interpret the taught content through a conceptual framework of prior knowledge and beliefs.

Years of research in science education has found teaching facts alone is an ineffective strategy when trying to change a person’s ingrained misconceptions or “alternative theories”.

A New Approach to Teaching Scientific Literacy

Scientific theories build from evidence through the process of argumentation. Every fact and theory taught in the curriculum should undergo questions and testing with evidence. Students should ideally observe or collect data for themselves.

There are many practical ways to show the Earth is round that can be done as a classroom activity. For instance, a classroom in Perth can interact online with another classroom in Bali (roughly the same longitude) to simultaneously measure the shadow from a metre stick and use the result to calculate the Earth’s circumference.

Repeatedly asking students to question every fact will instil a lifelong value of critical literacy in science. It is crucial for young people to always evaluate the source of information and discern false claims lacking empirical evidence, such as drinking bleach to treat coronavirus.

Teaching science should also be a dialogue within a community of people. This is the human side of science where ideas are discussed, argued and negotiated in the process of building consensus.

Mirroring this process, students must have opportunities to practise evidence-based argumentation. Their innate theories about the world should be elicited and compared with accepted scientific theories, so students can see their relative merits and suitability in addressing a particular phenomenon or problem.

Emotions Play a Large Part

Last but not least, emotions play a big part in science learning. Scientific issues that represent social concerns (such as the lockdown) and problems related to science and technology (the 5G network) can evoke a range of emotions among students.

It is important to acknowledge students’ emotions as they deal with the moral and ethical issues in these ideas. Controversial issues provide not only an authentic learning context, but are also excellent topics for debate and argumentation.

Some studies have found allowing students to express their emotions during lessons on such social issues in science can enhance their empathy and disposition towards science.

The goal of scientific literacy is not new. But COVID-19 has brought a greater urgency to its importance. Scientific literacy is now no longer an educational aspiration that is good to attain, but a very immediate concern that impacts our survival in a post-truth society.

This article, by Kok-Sing Tang, was originally published here on The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Tang is an Associate Professor at Curtin University in Perth, Australia.

Blowing Questions, photograph © Brian Yap / flickr

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August 29, 2020

4 Responses to “Scientific Literacy: Teach Questions, Not Answers”

  1. August 29, 2020 at 9:44 pm, Chester Draws said:

    Students learn isolated and impersonal facts without understanding the history and processes of how scientists know what we know — an education in scientific literacy.

    Sounds good. But as always with simple sounding solutions, completely wrong.

    You can’t have “scientific literacy” devoid of factual knowledge. I have a very high scientific education, but because it is primarily in chemistry and physics, I simply cannot think scientifically about most biological issues. I don’t know enough to sensibly discuss even the simplest items.

    If I want to learn if statins work, for example, then there is a lot of reading up about them and their background before I can even start. My five years of science at University isn’t even enough to start to equip me to talk sensibly about blood pressure.

    Thinking works off knowledge — if you know nothing, you cannot think usefully about about a topic. If you want people to be able to think more scientifically, then getting them to learn more facts would be the first step.

    Your suggestion is like asking people to think in French without knowing any French words.

    • August 30, 2020 at 3:15 am, Ted said:

      Chester, I cannot find where Dr. Tang suggested that science education should be “devoid of factorial knowledge.” I think you’re arguing with a false dichotomy here.

  2. August 30, 2020 at 11:28 am, Mary-Jo said:

    As students in any scientific discipline, there’s often SO much knowledge to learn, we don’t get time to ask as many questions as we would like. Fortunately, my experience has been that once I started working and applying knowledge to help people, the questions started coming relentlessly, and never stop! If this is ‘theoretically’ true, why doesn’t it work in this situation? Will this always be the case or will it change once we discover more? What can I do to use this knowledge to apply it best to your situation? How does this medicine work for you so well and not so well for you? It goes on and on. The more I know, the more I learn what I don’t know. I didn’t just make that up.😁

  3. August 31, 2020 at 12:31 am, Shaking Head said:

    “This is the human side of science where ideas are discussed, argued and negotiated in the process of building consensus.”

    *Buzz* Wrong.

    Science doesn’t progress by discussion and consensus-building, it progresses by invalidating old models with new and better ones. Often through history the prevailing “scientific consensus” has stood in the way of this. Things can change overnight, scientists need to be ready to throw away everything they know (or work damn hard to reconcile contradictory models) for a new better model, supported by solid, independently reproducible data.

    This article is a product of the constant creep of post-modernist philosophy into the academy. How do you know what’s true? Science. That’s how. If you don’t believe it, do the experiment yourselves. That’s why global warming, global cooling, (anthropogenic) climate change is such political BS; you can’t test it. Yes, the climate of Earth changes. And yes, living creatures affect it. They have since day 1. Where to you think all the free oxygen came from?